John GoodeFalkland Islands
I’ve played a half dozen of the three dozen or so Worthington Games titles published to date. Each time I’ve come away with the same thought: “This could be good if it had different rules.”
That’s not entirely true as the abysmal Mercury/Market Garden is pure doorstop material. Design wise it has all the innovation of Roshambo. And historically speaking you can gain a better understanding of the operations by browsing a tourist pamphlet, even one written in Cretan.
But Cowboys: The Way of the Gun had unrealized potential. Granted they weren’t aiming for another morass like AH’s Gunslinger, but a tactical old west gunfighting game without facing is just a bad idea. Ever try firing a Colt single-action with your ass? It always ends badly.
Hearts and Minds: Vietnam 1965-1975 too had its share of interesting concepts but screamed for more development to make it a fun game. It’s a repetitive slog as published even in the vastly revised second edition. Charlie not only doesn’t surf in this game, he doesn’t even walk.
Which brings us to Scotland Rising: The Battle of Bannockburn 1314, a game that manages to get this straightforward open field head-clobbering contest wrong in all its key aspects.
How’s that you ask? Forsooth and cue the lute:
1. It forces the English to attack and grants points for exiting English units. BUT the Scots were the attackers and the English had no incentive to do anything other than win the field battle. They were not racing to break the siege of Sterling Castle as the game suggests. Winning this battle would have ended the siege, such as it was.
2. It includes the town of Bannock and units to the west of the eponymous creek. BUT these areas were not relevant to the battle nor fought over. The Bannock Burn (creek) was on one side of the battlefield and mainly served to hem in the English since it was difficult for horses and armored men to cross.
3. It gives the English plenty of room to maneuver and they can even cross the Bannock Burn. BUT the English army was large, dispersed and became trapped between the creek’s steep sides and marshland to the east and south. Once a few units began to panic they had nowhere to go but into other units, resulting in a classic chain-reaction rout.
4. Edward II’s actions have no effect on anything. BUT the king leaving the battlefield as the Scot’s approached (after spanking a few formations of Gloucester’s knights) is what caused the English army to take their cue from the king, turn tail, and skippity-do-da back to good old Blighty.
5. The Scots won a resounding victory for very good reasons. BUT good luck doing that here or learning why it happened.
Even taking into account that the goal was to design a simple game that could be completed in 90 minutes, a buyer deserves correct unit deployment, a reasonably accurate OoB and mechanics/victory conditions that incorporate the key elements of the battle.
No one is expecting Dungeons & Dragons-level detail on armor and weapons in four pages of rules, but give us the generally accepted historical overview, or make a case in the designer’s notes why your game deviates from it. To me this is the implied contract every publisher makes with every potential buyer. Scotland Rising breaches this contract in material ways.
Normally I’d ignore a marginal game from a small publisher in which I’ve only invested a couple hours, but Scotland Rising, and Worthington Games in general, has several things going for it.
1. The art direction is first rate.
2. Componentry is well done: large, thick counters., cardstock map, color rules; overall a good tactile experience.
3. It’s a near miss. A little tweaking/playtesting can make it work.
Medieval battles are by their nature not going to be subtle affairs. They were more about morale than maneuver and so don’t usually make for great gaming. Bannockburn had two armies smashing into each other on an open field until one broke and fled.
At this time both sides generally believed that God would determine the victor. All an individual could do was go out and slaughter with all his God-given might and skill. If his side was found worthy victory would be divinely granted.
Subtract the physical violence and that’s not far removed from what we do when wargaming. So in that sense there’s a simulation to be had here.
In the spirit of being part of the solution and because I really wanted to like this game I reworked the rules. After all, with the PC trend in this country I don't know how much longer caving-in skulls for God and country will be socially acceptable, even in the cardboard pretend realm, so best to have a game that allows it. Hell, celebrates it.
You can find the revised rules in the downloads section on BGG, here. It still plays fast, uses all the original components unmodified, and is a competitive contest. Plus now both sides chuck dice in every melee. Just like God meant us to.
With the revised rules the game at least reflects the battle as seen by contemporary historians. Straight out of the box it’s neither a simulation of the battle nor much fun.
So Many Games ... So Little Time
Archive for John Goode
20 Oct 2016
- [+] Dice rolls
It was a dark and possibly stormy night in game designer Craig Besinque’s game room. On a bottom shelf a brawny, worn-around-the-edges, has-been was feeling frisky. Mr. Axis and Allies had seen a lot of action, though most of it three decades ago. Sure he was overweight, but he had timeless moves, well-sculpted physical features and could show you a good time if you weren’t too much into book learning and had the wrists to go the distance.
A shelf above, Ms. EuroFront was playing coy in her tight fitting tube top. She knew she was a lot to handle and that her parts didn’t exactly mesh seamlessly. But as long as her paramour didn’t focus too much down south he tended to like what she had to offer. And of course she was into older men. Almost exclusively.
We’ll never know exactly how things played out that evening but I just finished another game of their resultant lovechild: Triumph & Tragedy.
T&T is GMT’s 3-player strategic level World War 2 ETO game released in 2015 and already sold out and in the que for a reprint. It looks and feels like a Columbia game with a paper map (to be upgraded to mounted in 2nd edition), stickers, wooden blocks, cards, rules with notes in the margin and lots of 6-sided dice.
As a simulation T&T starts and ends with the map, a functional, arbitrary, area-movement representation of the western hemisphere. Small countries are one space, pre-war Germany is three, while Turkey has six spaces and Russia 25. Many spaces give the controlling player population and/or resources, though not in any realistic way. Czechoslovakia only grants population though it was relatively resource rich. I’m not aware of any strategic resources Denmark delivered (milk?) but in T&T it’s equal to Norway or all of Northern England/Scotland.
Each nationalities' units act exactly the same, though some German, UK and USA units can be built up one step larger. Every unit type from armor to aircraft carriers cost the same to build. In combat some types fire before others and the target number to get a hit varies slightly (armor needs 2 or less, infantry 3 or less): all fairly generic block-game stuff. T&T’s mechanics aren’t going bowl anyone over and if you’re a wargamer of any experience you’ve played this game before.
At least as far as the ground game goes. Where T&T gets interesting is in the diplomatic game. In addition to using your yearly resources to build your armed forces you can also buy Investment and/or Action/Diplomacy cards. The former increase your production or grant your military units special benefits. The later are required to move your armies or can be used to buy influence in neutral countries. If you can get three influence in a neutral it will ally with you permanently. Always a good thing.
This resource management aspect is tricky and a greater determinant in what side wins than the military sphere. Granted, if your armies overrun all before them a military win is still the shortest distance to point B: victory. But conflict voraciously eats both belligerents production and the combat system tends towards stalemate. Considering that all but the most casualty-free attack will mainly benefit the side not fighting and that you get a random amount of victory points (0-2) each year you don’t fight at all and T&T looks more like an argument for pacifism.
And that’s a valid argument. But it results in the insurmountable problem with three-player wargames: you’re not the master of your destiny. What you do often matters much less than what your opponents do. If you get attacked you lose the peace dividend that year. Nothing you can do about this. Once the peace is broken the nation still at peace is in a powerful position. Since this will often be the Soviets they have little incentive to do anything but collect peace dividends while building up the army and possibly investing in VP-granting technology.
The Axis can’t really sustain a two-front war, leaving the West in the odd situation of having to declare war on the Soviets, lest they win via sitzkrieg. Unless they can gobble up large tracts of land, or the West is grabbing too much Axis territory, the Soviets have no incentive to join the fray.
It all quickly and frequently goes Twilight Zone. But it can be fun. It can also be horribly lopsided. And too often you are not the master of your domain, such as when one of your rivals opts to do something random, ill-advised, or spiteful. I frequently got the feeling when playing T&T that I'm along for the ride more than leading anything.
The appeal of games like T&T is not lost on me though I’m alarmed by the trend towards ever thinner veneers of history in wargames. T&T isn’t in the category of Twilight Struggle or Churchill—games so devoid of any simulation cred they could just as easily be about dominating a landscape of confections or becoming the best fed hippopotamus—but it’s definitely a case of truth being the first casualty: historical truth. And why play a historical game if it's not at all historical? Because it can still be a good game I suppose.
Taken for what it is, T&T is a light, fun game and one very much in tune with what the current generation of wargamers seem to want. For me it’s just too light, too free-for-all and too random. Replay value is also not as high as it would seem after the first couple of plays.
Triumph & Tragedy: European Balance of Power 1936-1945
- [+] Dice rolls
Reds! is an odd stew of mechanics grafted onto a chaotic historical situation—the Russian civil war—resulting in a sort of Little Golden Book version of the conflict.
The conflict — between the insurgent Bolsheviks (the Reds of the title) against various capitalist and monarchist factions, and some eight foreign countries (the Whites) — seems tailor-made for wargaming: multiple fronts, numerous and diverse factions, planes, armored trains, tanks and near limitless opportunities for chrome.
Chrome you say? We're talking side-switching anarchistic armies, a looming Polish invasion, Cossack raids, Trotsky shuttling from front to front giving rousing speeches to rally the troops: “Gamers of the world, you have nothing to lose but a half-dozen hours of your time.”
The first half of Reds! is basically a head-butting contest with the side that rallies more effectively prevailing on that front. Unless you're playing against an actual drunk commie the Whites will not be able to prevent Allied Withdrawal around mid-game. The first withdrawal only removes a couple units. But that is followed by major withdrawal which sees all the foreign forces go home and frees up enough Red armies to have the White’s soiling their tunics. Now Reds! turns into a game of run-away as standing up to the Red army will result in you getting hammered to the point of requiring a sickle to scrape your remains off the steppes.
It’s a bit like playing Whack-A-Mole with paralyzed moles. Instead of occasionally ducking you get repeatedly clocked. Whites rally only on a dr of 1 after major withdrawal so once your head gets bashed in chances for first aid are slim.
And that’s problem number one with Reds! It seriously overstays its welcome. The fun runs out at hour three, about the time when the White’s become pinsetters and the Red steamroller flattens the various speedbumps that make up the remaining White forces.
The Reds have to capture every Russian city on the map (or KO the Poles and capture 10 centrally located cities) so it’s not as if the Whites can’t win, but finding volunteers to play the immobilized moles in Whack-A-Mole is a challenge.
That’s problem number two with Reds! It’s scripted to produce the historical result on the historical timetable, give-or-take a couple months. At the half-game mark it becomes tedious playing the Whites.
Problem three is the previously mentioned odd stew of mechanics. Far be it for me to question Hall of Fame designer Ted Raicer (Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin etc.) but it seems convoluted for the sake of convolution. The poster child for this is the combat procedure. Before I tell you what a single combat involves realize that in practice around 75% of the time the result will be defender flips and usually retreats. Occasionally both the defender and attacker will flip. It’s possible for just the attacker to flip but this rarely happens.
Here’s what you have to do for each combat: Add up the Manpower Strength of each unit, use this to determine the combat odds. Add up the number of units on each side, this is the multiplier value of your combat dr. Now determine the combat die roll modifier, this is determined by adding/subtracting the combat dr modifier listed on each individual unit. Now each side rolls a d6, multiplies it by the number of units on its side, adds or subtracts its combat dr modifier and cross-references it on the odds column determined by the Manpower value. Then the defender flips and retreats. One combat done, many more to go.
Granted, it’s not Organic Algebra but what a chore to determine that the defender flips and retreats. Like many convoluted mechanics it starts out being fun when new and novel but becomes tedious after repeated application.
There are other oddball things, for example in-supply units can never move out of supply but out of supply units have complete freedom of movement. I guess once you’re near that field kitchen you’re not doing anything to put distance between you and that sweet, sweet, borscht.
All of this is not to say that Reds! isn’t a good time because it can be. There is a shorter scenario where you only play the first 13 of the normal 24 turns. The rules are not overlong or overchromed so the convoluted combat procedure is not a symptom of oppressive rules weight.
Scripted play is for me the game’s biggest downside since it greatly limits replay value. And Reds! simplifies a staggering amount of chaos to make it a two-player game you can finish in one long afternoon. Reds! is to the Russian Civil War what Checkers is to Chess.
After just two playings I sold my first edition copy years ago when it was in demand between printings. I played a couple games of the largely unchanged second edition recently and enjoyed it but have no desire to play or acquire Reds! again anytime soon. It falls firmly into the "play a friend's copy" category.
I keep hoping a truly great Russian Civil War game will be produced in my lifetime. SPI’s The Russian Civil War was fun, but requires four players and is history lite. Triumph of Chaos looked like it could be the one but turned out to be a morass. Now if Brad or Brian Stock of Pursuit of Glory fame were to be hired as developer of Triumph of Chaos second edition … man, that would be the ticket. I’d pre-order two of those.
Reds! The Russian Civil War 1918-1921
- [+] Dice rolls
24 Jun 2016
There may be some incredible aspect to the War of 1812, but you won’t find them in Mr. Madison's War.
The appeal of this conflict as wargame topic has long eluded me: little of consequence happened.
The war of 1812 was a multi-theater, mostly small-scale, affair. It's primarily remembered for the U.S. Navy’s victories over several outmatched British ships. British control of the seas was never challenged. Since the Royal Navy possessed more than 300 frigates and ships-of-the line at the outset of the War of 1812 and the American Navy had only 16 ships, nine of them frigates, no real challenge was even possible.
The only theater covered in the MMW is the area around the great lakes. The largest battles of the war were fought elsewhere.
MMW features the not uncommon pitting of superior troops versus greater number. Britain has the better soldiers but is at the end of a long supply line. U.S. units are hastily recruited militia but there are more of them.
Historically the Americans did the invading in 1812, but since the player can see these militia won’t win many fights, it’s not something you really want to do. The British were on the strategic defensive historically (being more concerned with Napoleon’s shenanigans in Europe) but can be an offensive powerhouse here.
Problem is, the linear point-to-point nature of the map limits maneuver. There is only one way in and one way out of most locations. Bash-and-pray is the order of the day.
An aggressive Brit will set the tempo, though not sure tempo should be used with this game. MMW often craaaawls. On many turns there’s nothing interesting to do. And taking the initiative is fraught with peril. It’s usually best to be passive.
Land combat does offer some flashes of excitement, but again, there’s high risk often for little reward. The attacker rolls two dice, add/subtracts modifiers and usually someone takes a step loss and retreats. Depending on the roll it’s possible that combat continues and additional results are rolled. It has all the period feel of a canoe ride.
And then we find …
The dreaded non-linear CRT. In MMW land combat more is better — more soldiers, more leadership bonus, higher troop quality — as these all result in a higher modified die roll. Then why is getting a 9 a worse result than an 8 when attacking a fort? Roll an 8 and both sides take a hit and combat continues. But if you have better quality troops that 8 becomes a 9 and nothing happens, combat ends. So better quality troops are apparently timid and will break off combat before low quality troops. It makes no sense. And it’s annoying.
Now you may think the naval battles, of which some incredible ones did occur, would sail in to save the game. Right? Please ... Sadly, no.
Naval combat thunders with all the excitement of one-hand clapping. There are only four water zones, two of which see almost no action, so there’s not much sailing at all and combat is a single die roll affair. Since an entire side can be wiped out permanently with this roll, only the side with the advantage will ever offer a large scale battle. Obviously, these don’t happen unless one side is desperate. That leaves only minor sea skirmishes, which result in one sided getting bounced from the lake to shore, with any damage easily repaired.
The ships counters are there, it could potentially be exciting, but it would need different rules and maybe greater scope. MMW desperately needs an interesting naval combat system. Heck, even using War at Sea’s Yahtzee mechanic (roll a 6, sink a ship) could have made for some tense sea battles. Inexplicably, key naval battles are represented by event cards that grant the player victory points. This alone sinks the game for me.
If I wanted to play a game where you essentially go back and forth playing victory point cards I could just save a lot of time and money and deal a hand of Spades. Playing card events to gain victory points is like getting a trophy in a sport you’ve never played. And 30 of the cards in this game just give the player VP. That means the game you play on the map is a sideshow to playing a game of trumps. That actually is incredible, but not in a good way.
Sadly, it gets grimmer (cue Taps, this one’s dead, Jim) …
The only cards worse than ones that grant only VP in a CDG are ones that makes you lose a turn. Multiple lose a turn cards are the very definition of lame. I hate playing them and hate having them played on me. I’m not spending my afternoon playing this game to not play the game. If historically justified, I can swallow a couple such cards, but there are 4 cards in MMW that cancel your attempted naval/amphib move and 4 that cancel your ground move after 1 space. And several more that prevent you from moving. Ugh.
I’m not seeing how much of anything you do for most of the game matters much to the end result. VP are only counted at the end so there’s little driving you to take any risks in the early going. Our games all played out along similar lines once we learned not to do anything foolish like attack.
MMW is not a complete bust. It’s a gorgeous game and hits the sweet spot in terms of complexity and playing time. Playing it the first time was fun, largely because we didn’t realize that nothing in the first half of the game mattered much, or that we were really mostly playing 1812 Spades.
Ultimately MMW is not so much a simulation as a re-creation, with many of the key events of the war just told to you by a VP-granting event card. This is a problem since by the end of the actual war no real estate changed hands.
"My British countrymen just burned down the White House way off board! It says so right here on this card. 3VP! I win!"
I found myself apologizing to my defeated opponents for drawing more of the VP cards.
Mr. Madison's War: The Incredible War of 1812
- [+] Dice rolls
04 May 2016
I’ve always had a soft spot for Freedom in the Galaxy, SPI’s 1979 blatant rip-off of the Star Wars franchise. Rumor has it that SPI produced the game first and sought the Star Wars license second. Maybe not the best idea to come out of that meeting.
The license was either denied or too pricey. SPI then seemingly spent about 15 minutes filing off the serial numbers and presto … Freedom in the Galaxy. You can see it’s so not Star Wars as the main protagonists are Adam Starlight and a princess named Leia, I mean Zina. Though Han Solo seems to have morphed from lech to lizardman, at least on the box cover.
There’s no Death Star but instead a more realistically named—in a government propaganda sense—Planetary Stabilizer (it strips the crust off planets it targets). The bad guys are led by Emperor Coreguya whose right-hand man is an armor-wearing baddie named Redjac. The victory conditions are for the Empire to find a secret rebel base or the Rebels to ignite a galactic revolt. Obviously similarities to films made or imagined are purely coincidental.
Try such a blatant knock-off today though and the Stormlawyers from Lucas (now Disney) would shut you down before you could say “This is not the game you are looking for.” SPI went belly-up a couple years later but before then they sold five of their games to Avalon Hill. FitG was one of these and A-H re-issued it in 1981 with a mounted map but no other changes.
Freedom in the Galaxy was essentially Star Wars interpreted through Wacht Am Rhein and clunky even by 1979 standards. There are 51 planets to search. Each one has a loyalty level, a potential secret, military units, a planetary defense base of varying level, resource level, atmosphere type, development level, etc. … whew. Playing the campaign is a take-a-week-off type endeavor, ideally with constipation and no sit-down meals.
In FitG each side has a cast of cliched characters (the frog alien, the dog alien, the cat/lion alien ... ) and you basically choose a mission, travel to a planet and then flip cards attempting to get a certain number of successes. Along with your character missions there’s also a very basic military game where your ground units invade/defend worlds in order to gain resources and affect loyalty. That is it. Everything else is chrome. And there’s a blinding amount of it, so much in fact you have to learn the game in steps: first play on a planet, then in a system, then in a province, then you can finally go galactic. It gets tedious long before it gets finished.
Star Wars: Rebellion is essentially the same game at its core but much streamlined for modern sensibilities. The game’s engine uses characters to go on missions that if successful affect board position, production and even the turn track. Along with this is a military game of space and planetary battles and maneuver. Instead of drawing cards for successes you roll special dice based on how skilled your character is at the type of missions being attempted. But where FitG is every bit a wargame with the theme grafted on, Rebellion is more roleplaying experience with a wargame grafted on. And though not technically asymmetrical rules wise, in practice the Imperial and Rebels play very differently.
It’s not Freedom in the Galaxy 2 but it has a very similar feel, definitely a fitting evolution for current attention-span challenged times. From my experience Fantasy Flight often calls a game done as soon as the plastic bits are finished, but SW:R seems to have seen some development and playtesting. Always a good thing and a reason it succeeds along with:
1. It’s actually Star Wars. Obviously they landed the license, thereby increasing sales by a factor of at least 1000 (though it probably added 25% to the price).
2. It plays fast. There's one scenario and it can be finished in an afternoon, though length varies a fair bit depending on how quickly the Imperials find the rebel base.
3. Big balls of plastic. There are enough plastic minis here to gag a clutch of Bantas. Current game buyers seemingly can’t get enough plastic fiddlefaddle. Minis are not a plus in my book as they increase price, box size, clutter the map and aren’t as efficient in game terms—requiring a separate card to tell you what each piece's stats are. Admittedly, they add to the spectacle and the Death Stars look impressively menacing.
4. First–rate componentry all around. Where FitG’s map looks like a mad scientist's diagram of string theory, SW:R’s map is a work of art, huge and populated with the planets even us non-Warsies recognize. Tatooine, Dagobah, Hoth have entered the popular culture: Ryloth, Ilum, Mygeeto not so much, but everything is functionally rendered and integrated. I was immersed I was. All depictions are artwork, there are no stills from the films.
5. The game works both thematically and mechanically. You feel like you’re playing out the events from episodes 4-6, though with plenty of leeway to change “history.” And it’s a fun game with both a Clue-like mystery solving mechanic, the standard sci-fi 4X elements – explore, expand, exploit and exterminate – and even a tactical dimension during the space and land battles.
It adds up to a high quality package, but be aware that behind all the fiddly bits and theme it's really a wargame—life forms are killed, Ewoks are violated, Mon Calamari are deep-fried, shit blows up.This may not be for the farm-gaming and choo-choo crowd. Also, behind the eye candy is a strategically complex game requiring many decisions. Lite-gamers often don’t like thinking to the degree this game will require so it’s not a good ‘starter’ or family game.
And unfortunately it costs a ridiculous $100 (street price is closer to $75 delivered). That’s really a stunning amount for a box of paper and plastic. To keep that in perspective you probably paid half that amount to see "The Force Awakens," assuming you went with a GF/spouse or offspring. SW:R definitely provides more entertainment bang for the buck than the film.
Replay value looks to be middling. After three games I’m still looking forward to next time but I can see this getting routine and prone to linear play once the killer moves/combos are discovered. The design also can’t be called elegant. There’s a kitchen-sink aspect to it, what with the custom dice, counters, minis, action cards, tactical cards, mission cards, objective cards, project cards … Thankfully there is no spinner.
I’m an old-school wargamer but I gotta say the force is strong with this one. Ultimately the extortionary price means it's not for everyone. There’s a lot of gaming goodness in this box, but if it's worth $75-100 will depend on what you're giving up to transfer that many credits to Fantasy Flight. If that's food or the attentions of the opposite sex you may need to look into a way to earn extra money to buy it.
I hear smuggling is lucrative.
Star Wars: Rebellion
Freedom in the Galaxy: The Star Rebellions, 5764 AD
- [+] Dice rolls
28 Apr 2016
Cutting to the chase, GMT’s The U.S. Civil War is not a better game than For the People.
It certainly hews closer to the history though. In fact, The U.S. Civil War is Exhibit A in the case against getting it too right, simulation wise.
Playing TUSCW is not that far removed from reading a history book titled "The U.S. Civil War." There are no surprises here: Generals’ ratings don't matter that much and range only from 0-2, with most being a 1 (you can guess who the 2s are); events happen when they should, even battlefield deaths occurring right on schedule (even without combat); the Federals take the historical routes of advance, as there’s no reason to deviate from them; recruitment rates are fixed to the, presumably, historical rate.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing will depend on what you’re looking for in an ACW game. I was looking for something a little more, well, new. The majority of rules here are direct clones from Victory Games’ The Civil War and GMT’s For the People.
From my playings of all three scenarios I can’t see the CSA ever winning any of them against competent play. That’s not enough experience for me to declare the game unbalanced, but it doesn’t matter, as even in the unlikely event we completely misplayed the Confederates I never want to play them again. Ever.
I don’t mind playing the forlorn hope if there’s at least a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel. In TUSCW the path forward is pitch black for the Rebs. Since the menu is fixed and there is no political dimension the CSA player is basically a pinsetter, setting them up so the USA player can knock them down, turn after painful turn. The game’s smooth mechanics make this sorta fun, for a time, but a little goes a long way here.
You will occasionally have a tactical or operational success as the Rebs, but the resolution mechanisms are not in themselves engaging enough to be keep you entertained for the 6-8+ hours it will take to play out a campaign. Most of this time you will find yourself being smacked around while you occasionally manage to duck a punch or even land a glancing blow against the Federals.
Though mechanically the game works and feels right for the period the operational tempo seems a tad fast. A lot can happen each turn. There are many more naval actions going down than in FtP. The Confederacy is a very leaky boat in this game and Union troops poke new holes in her every turn. Do use the advanced naval rules which are, not to be too academic, way cool. In fact all the advanced/optional rules are worthwhile.
There’s much initial love for TUSCW online and chatter that it is going be become a classic. I don’t see it and here’s why:
1. Too predictable. In FtP the random nature of the cards gives the CSA hope. The same hope I reckon the southerners had when they embarked on this doomed endeavor. In FtP you can actually gain a march on the more lethargic Union generals. Some turns your recruitment efforts really bear fruit. You can delay the Emancipation Proclamation. And every once in a blue moon even get the Europeans to intervene on side of the Confederacy. None of that happens in TUSCW.
2. Point-to-point movement really works better for the ACW. To supply any significant force you need rail or river lines and so all those hexes don’t really serve much purpose except for the cavalry raid sideshow that, while fun, doesn't amount to much.
3. The South’s only path to victory is avoiding complete extinction. This puts the CSA player in the wrong mindset right from the start. Invading the north in TUSCW is exceptionally high risk, low reward. There’s a very limited time for it to work in the early going after which the CSA switches over to full hedgehog defense. And even if you hedgehog efficiently enough to squeak out a win by holding the Federals to 59 victory points that's not at all satisfying.
The bottom line problem is that once you remove all politics, the U.S. civil war was of course grossly unbalanced. The south was not ever going to militarily occupy the north. Without the politics you truly only have a lost cause. And while there’s a certain romance to that, it does not make for an enjoyable game.
Classic games are above all else fun to play repeatedly. For me TUSCW isn’t. I’m not sorry I invested my time in it and it is a quality product; however, at my house it will spend most of its time on the shelf unless I can get one of the local southern boys to play the CSA. Smacking the rebels around is fun in an anthill-kicking sort of way.
Wa-woo-woohoo, wa-woo woohoo!
Wish that were a rebel yell kicking off a promising drive north, but sadly it's the sound of the rebel player crying every reinforcement phase.
The U.S. Civil War
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After playing several unsatisfying strategic level World War 2 games within the last year – Unconditional Surrender and Supreme Commander – which have very different interpretations of the war in the west in 1940, I got to thinking about games that have successfully made this one-sided campaign interesting. And there aren’t many. I can think of at least a half-dozen games I’ve played on this campaign that have missed the mark (by rank of awfulness):
1. Strange Defeat. The Fall of France 1940. Strangest thing about this title is how something this ugly and half-baked ever got published. If trained gibbons and a mimeograph machine were involved that would explain it, otherwise there’s no excuse.
2. The Game of France, 1940. Avalon Hill’s SPI-designed relic from another era. Among the last kids picked even at a time when we only had half a dozen kids on the ‘playground.’
3. 1940. GDW 120 Series game that abstracts everything to the point of pointlessness in order to meet a price point and fit into the cute little box.
4. Blitzkrieg 1940. A typical Command magazine game. Which is to say fun to play once or twice and not much concerned with history.
5. The Fall of France. GDW’s Europa series title. A quagmire of stacked counters that I recall taking longer than the actual campaign to complete. Great for its time but that time is long gone.
6. Case Yellow, 1940. Ted Racier’s take on the campaign. Long playing time, much of it uninteresting. Chromey in a not good way. The best of this bunch by far though.
The crux of the issue is that if you make the French behave too historically it’s a German romp. Unhinge them from their historical command and doctrinal problems and you often end up with Superfrench who hold on for months or even years past their expiration date.
At the time the French-Allied forces looked more than sufficient to stop the Germans. With roughly equal numbers of men, more tanks and artillery and on the defensive, the Allies seemingly had the tools to contain any German attack and then dig-in for another bout of trench warfare. Qualitatively the Allies weren’t outclassed either as more than half the panzers in the French campaign were model 1 and 2s. So it really came down to doctrine and leadership along with some German innovations, like close air support and widespread use of radios.
For my money the operational game that best manages to simulate this situation is GMT’s France ’40. Designed by Mark Simonitch and similar (though not identical) to the system used in Ukraine ’43, Ardennes '44, and Normandy ’44, France ’40 contains two games in one box (some shared pieces but separate map for each).
The Dynamo game, about crushing the Dunkirk bridgehead, is uninteresting and really more of a solitaire exercise. But the main invasion game, Sickle Cut, is a tense and fun affair.
You start with a smaller but much more mobile German force facing a French army with a large front to cover and that has dispersed its armor, preferring to parcel it out to support individual infantry divisions.
French leadership and initiative failures are represented by GQG markers, which the German gets to place every turn (starting with 6 but declining as the game goes on). Stacks suffering from Grand Quartier General meddling don’t attack and move only 2 spaces. This allows the German player to target key areas of the defense (the effect also represents air interdiction) for weakening.
Still, fighting your way through the French lines is not easy. Though you can exploit gaps, it quickly gets lonely behind enemy lines. And you need a supply line stretching the length of the map to win. Out of supply penalties are soft: You can exist out of supply for a time but can’t do much offensively. It takes Guderian-size cojones to charge past the mass of French divisions on your flanks and head to the coast.
I’ve only played Sickle Cut twice (one German, one Allied win) and Dynamo once (Allied win) so do not have a strong opinion on play balance. The Germans certainly require more finesse to get right and I have a nagging fear that this game may fall more on the side of Superfrench once you figure out optimal strategies. Then again, if the French had acted optimally, they likely would have been able to contain the German onslaught.
A point not often discussed in wargaming is that certain campaigns are more realistically simulated with inexperienced commanders. Command control rules are a way to artificially introduce that element, but it may be best simulated by players who are new to the game. Ideally you've played other games in the series so you have the rules down pat, but your first play of France '40 is the one that will most realistically put you in the role of the actual commanders.
France ’40 is what you hope to, and should, get when plunking down $40-$50 for a wargame. It checks all the boxes: solid textual presentation; graphically attractive; playtested to achieve a semblance of play balance; and overall entertainment value for the money.
There’s nothing innovative or new enough here to rank it an A but it’s the very definition of a solid B wargame. I'd play it again any time.
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Stalin’s War is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, rushed out the door in a cardboard box.
An enigma because you have to wonder how something this underdeveloped was ever released. But unless you are new to wargaming you’re not wondering all that much, as GMT releases a fair number of half-baked turkeys every year. And I say that with love in my heart and gravy on my shirt.
The suckers who purchased the first run copies of Stalin’s War received poultry so unbalanced its legs were pointing firmly skyward, muffled gobbles emanating from the shrinkwrap. Truth in advertising should have mandated a title change to Hitler’s Wet Dream. And this time it’s not just my opinion.
As evidence just look at how much the Wehrmacht was emasculated in the "second edition" (basically the same components with modified/living rules). To wit:
1. Soviets now choose any card from the deck to start the game with.
2. Axis play of reinforcement events or for replacements does not reset the operations track on first four turns (this is HUGE).
3. Soviets get 3 free replacement points on turns 2 and 3.
4. Axis lose the game if they don’t have 10 VP at end of Summer 1943.
5. Soviet reinforcements can now appear in towns (this turns out to be a big deal).
Wow! Any two of these would be major, but five kicks straight to the Axis groinal region just to gain a semblance of balance?
Was anyone who has ever played an East front wargame involved in playtesting? Was there any playtesting? I mean the very first time you play SW using the printed rules the Germans are skiing in the Urals, and Dolf is doing his little Nazi macarena in the Kremlin.
It didn’t take long after SW was released—say a month—before it was outed as the rabid gobbler it was. Seems, as is becoming the fairly standard GMT modus, that the initial purchasers were used as unwitting playtesters, with the real game emerging a year or so later with the living rules.
But giving the devil his due, the fixes have served Stalin’s War well. Though—sadly—they seem a bit slap-dash and create some new problems.
Case in point: requiring the Germans to have 10 VP at the end of Summer ’43 was presumably added so the Germans don’t unhistorically retreat to better defensive positions after they can no longer achieve automatic victory. Problem is, there are several events that subtract VP. So even if the Germans are doing well—better than historically even—they can arbitrarily instantly lose if the Soviets draw the right cards.
And that my friends, is chuck-the-whole-thing-in-the-garbage frustrating. Save yourself the potential grief and change this from requiring 10 VP to requiring the historical six Russian VP cities.
I’m a big fan of the operations track in SW, whereby each time you consecutively play a card for operations it’s worth fewer points: play two in a row and the second is worth one fewer ops, play three in a row and the third is worth two fewer ops, etc. Even armies gotta rest after all. It’s an elegant way to control the operational pace and temper those banzai krauts from making a hell-be-damned charge to Siberia.
But SW also recycles the Nordlicht/Taifun/Blau event mechanic from Barbarossa to Berlin, which served to tame the operational pace in that game. Add to this the second edition prohibition about resetting the ops track during early reinforcement or replacement plays and the Germans can find themselves not just tamed, but declawed and missing the family jewels. I was half expecting to see a Russian event titled I Neutered My German Invaders.
Adding insult to injury, the above referenced cards are 4 Ops events that must be played before the Axis can attack Leningrad/Moscow/Stalingrad-Caucasus respectively. For the Axis player they effectively read: “Permanently lose a turn and a 4 Ops card.” In the early war deck there are only five 4 Ops cards. And you really can’t kick off Barbarossa with a bang unless you play a big ops card. So you often have no choice but to play one or more of these events for ops. They are also the best replacement cards.
I won’t argue that the Germans just didn’t have the resources to tackle all three objectives and the cards represent laying the logistical groundwork to attack them. But along with the other prohibitions this is a bit of throttling overkill in the early game. And I really dislike the side effect of the Russians magically knowing they can lightly garrison these cities until the event is played. And once one of these hits the discard pile the Russians know the city is safe for several turns even with a German horde nearby.
When played as events these cards should grant 1 op that can only be used to attack the relevant space. That would keep the Soviets honest at least.
In addition to being enigmatic, Stalin’s War is also a riddle that challenges you to figure it out. As a simulation it’s not that interesting. The game’s narrative is shallow and as scripted as a Hogan’s Heroes episode. And you never really feel like you’re a commander on the Eastern Front like you do in say Russian Front or even The Russian Campaign.
But there’s definitely a puzzle here. I’ve had a lot of fun figuring it out. Play can get downright Chess like. And like Chess, the mechanics aren’t difficult but play is subtle. It’s the mechanics that engage you here not so much the situation or history.
Also like a riddle though, once you figure it out it loses much of its appeal. After five games I’m done with SW. But I’ve gotten my $20 worth.
The first edition of Stalin’s War ranks an F for complete lack of play balance. Too bad the second edition was used as a triage opportunity more than a way to take it to the next level. Still, it's worth playing a couple times, especially if you favor tactical gameplay over period feel and simulation value.
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I just spent a month revisiting GMT’s Empire of the Sun. Released in 2005, it ranks as my most anticipated game of the last decade. I can still remember the day it came in the mail. Like a sumo wrestler waiting for the all-you-can-eat BBQ place to open, I was so anxious to get my hands on the prize I actually drooled on the box.
EotS covers the whole PTO at strategic level, is playable in a day, was designed by Mark Herman – of For the People and Washington’s War fame – and traces its lineage to Victory Games’ superb Pacific War.
How could it not be great?
And it is, but in a zen sort of way. It has one rather large problem and hence its share of haters. More on that in a moment.
After playing it a couple dozen times in its first and second editions I put it away, as its replay value is average at best and I became convinced the U.S. couldn’t lose, barring very bad card draws. But that's realistic enough.
When rules version 3.0 was released in mid-2015 I was curious to see what had been changed and/or fixed. Not that there was anything particularly broken once the second edition addressed some gamey rules aspects and cleaned up the more problematic cards (it also added a mounted map, which is not a plus in my book).
Empire of the Sun, being a novel and unconventional system, was going to face the inevitable griping about poorly written rules. And it certainly did, but really, it's all there. Every wargame rulebook could be better written/organized, but we’re dealing with a product that sells in the four-digits, you can’t really hire an editorial team to work on optimizing the rules and still have a viable business at these volumes.
The revised 3.0 rules are not just a reorganization, though they are that, there are also new things introduced such as “overland logistical range” and roads you have to pave in Northern India that were previously pre-paved. Can't say the new rules are better, they are different. Since it is now easy to get searchable PDFs, cockamamie organization or lack of a good index isn’t the deal breaker it once was.
But on to the game ... the crux of why EotS is somewhat polarizing is that it requires different thinking from your standard counter-pusher or even card-driven design. If you think the retreads of 30+ year old SPI titles Decision Games stamps out are the pinnacle of wargaming EotS may not be your cup of sake.
But me, I often get that little “this is way cool” tingle in the pit of my stomach when playing EotS. Few games manage that these days.
Looking out over the entire Pacific with a couple cards in my hand trying to put together an operation just feels way cool. Will my opponent be able to intercept? Will my task force be pounced upon by a flotilla of battleships? Or will I achieve tactical surprise and blast them to hell before they know what hit ‘em? One die roll stands between these diametrical outcomes.
You don’t just move all your assets and capture every island you can reach. You have to think operationally with each card play. Each card is a potential operation to advance your cause. You have X assets at your disposal. Card + assets = operation.
What can you achieve with the combination? How can you maximize your chances of grabbing that island, airfield, port, strategic location? Once you decide what and how, you set the thing in motion and pray. And here’s the big problem with the game: Praying is essential.
That is to say you need the god of luck on your side. More so than other games, luck can sucker punch you repeatedly to the point that you actually beg to play Kriegspiel. Some rolls being much more important than others. The better player will not always win.
This loss of control is more on the surface in EotS and it just rubs some people wrong. I’ve felt it too after losing a bunch of ships because I rolled a 9 on a d10 and failed the interception. Good play can mitigate this to some extent. But you can’t escape it. If you miss a key interception (always at least a 10% chance) bye, bye carrier task force … port … fleet ... maybe even game.
You can do incredibly stupid things and achieve brilliant results (not to say that’s unrealistic, but man is it ever annoying). Or play well and be denied success at every turn. This is especially true for the Japanese player. If a couple large battles go pear-shaped on you, or you can’t draw an Interception card to save your life, your life will be rather short, brutish and bloody.
Since essentially no one playing EotS will have WW2-era Japanese dedication to the war, I’ve rarely seen a game go to the bitter end. The Japanese usually give up, the average gamer's morale just breaks before he has technically lost. They are not hopeless, there’s a small window of opportunity early in the game for the Japanese to score an automatic victory. Once this shuts you begin to see why starting a war with an economy the size of the U.S. is a very bad idea.
Each side has an 80+ card dedicated deck so occasionally Japan will get all its hosers early (multiple War in Europe cards for example) while the Americans are stuck with Chinese offensives, that also gives the rising sons a chance at victory by delaying defeat.
But more commonly you get to the point of many, many, U.S. carrier task forces staring Ito in the face. They might not be Death Stars exactly but the effect on the Japanese navy is similar. For the last five turns the U.S. get +3 in air/naval combat so the sons of Nippon go flying off the map in great number. And some U.S. operations automatically grant surprise. If you have no reaction card the U.S. gets to blast you into next week before you can say Konichiwa. It can be veeeery frustrating.
And if that’s your first experience with EotS it's easy to see why you wouldn't want to hit yourself again with that hammer.
To like EotS you have to accept that your fate is far from entirely in your hands and enjoy it for the journey. Meditate on it. Contemplate. The game requires some Zen-like mental mechanisms to fully enjoy. It's not for the hypercompetitive.
The end tends to be historical in my experience. Given that, breathe deeply, try to think of nothing. Then take the Allies. And pray for luck.
Empire of the Sun
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I just spent two days in the wargaming equivalent of the land of Oz, also known as GMT’s Unconditional Surrender Europe. And just like in the classic film it looked grand from a distance. And all the rumors spoke of its magical properties. Here was the place you could go to have your wish of an innovative new strategic level World War 2 ETO game fulfilled.
All you needed was a brain, some heart and the courage to have a go at it. Having a little of the first, enough of the second and plenty of the third, I dove into the mini game Case Blue, included in C3i magazine to introduce players to the USE system. This was followed by playing a couple of the scenarios from the main game.
After a few turns it quickly became apparent I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, or in Europe for that matter. The “S” word should not be used when describing USE unless you’re talking about it simulating the carnival ride bumper cars. That’s what armies essential are in this game. Think of it as the military expansion to Ricochet Robots and you won't be far off.
You pay one or two production points to move a unit. Units move individually and “attack” by spending movement points to bash into enemy units. The most likely result, particularly if the attacker is the Germans, will be that the enemy retreats one space. Then you can spend more movement to bash into him again. Repeat for every unit you have, with armor being particularly good at bump-and-grab. Both sides roll in each combat and if you seriously outroll your opponent the defender may flip and retreat or the attacker may lose all his remaining movement points. That is essentially what you spend hours doing. And don’t even think about defense in depth. Having a friendly army covering your backside is the fastest way to get yourself unconditionally dead.
There’s some tactical, though generally obvious, finesse involved in bumping through enemy lines in order to isolate units that will be subsequently attacked. But don’t think about making large pockets of isolated defenders, you are only isolated if you are not adjacent to another friendly unit or city so only a single army can ever be isolated at any one time. Supply is checked at the end of your own move so surrounded pockets don’t suffer from being out of supply and can ‘bump’ back at full strength on their turn.
You don’t alternate moving units so be prepared to sit through a good long time of your opponent bumping your lines out of shape. Then it’s your turn to form a new line, hammer your old line back into shape if you can, or at least bump off the enemy units that stuck their necks out too far. Your not so much a general as a blacksmith.
The supply rules are bizarre and seem to have come from history books not available to the general public. Completely encircled cities not only supply armies in this game, you can build entire armies in them behind enemy lines. This even though no army-size unit was ever built in a surrounded city behind enemy lines. Not in World War 2, not in World War 1, not in the American Civil War. Never.
The point of surrounding armies was that it made them less effective and impossible to sustain in the field. Once this happened there were only two results: surrender/dissolution or a breakout/break in. They never got larger. They never organized entire new armies. Never. It’s not the first game to allow this, but it’s particularly dopey here.
That's because in USE the smallest units are armies, as in 100,000 to 150,000 men. Army scale makes for low counter density but it also means if you want to garrison a city you will have to use 100,000-plus soldiers to do it. This matters, for example, in Case Blue where you simply don’t have enough pieces on the map as the Axis to take and hold your victory cities without the Russians playing Twister on your supply lines. Oddly, Case Blue is an introductory game that’s essentially unwinable by one of the sides. Not the way to go methinks.
Overall USE is among the most process heavy games in recent memory. Take a peek below at the Fortranesque flow chart of what just the Action Phase involves. This is for each unit.
Every combat allows each player to secretly commit extra assets to it (using a go, no-go, style bidding mechanic) — either air power or event chits. That’s fine but eats up time way out of proportion to game effect. After the 50th time you start ignoring the hidden commitment mechanic and just say you’re adding/not adding to your attack.
Diplomacy and National Will have been abstracted to the point of near pointlessness. Much time is wasted on this as well as strategic warfare for very little meaningful effect. Diplomacy in particular is clunky and random. It’s neither fun nor generates realistic results.
A good example of the much-process-for-little-effect problem is the production system. Production is often at the core of strategic level games since it allows success to reinforce itself and allows swings of momentum.
In USE many major cities contain a factory and each nation has production equal to a multiple of the factories it controls, usually two times. This number is what you can spend to activate your units, purchase replacements and purchase random acts of diplomacy. Okay so far, except the points don’t accumulate and you have so many (except in Case Blue where the Germans don't have enough) that the vast majority of the time you can move everything and build back everything you lost in combat. Like much of the ancillary stuff in USE, it’s a lot of fuss for very little variance. Maybe this begins to matter in the later stages of the full campaign. I don't know, but I hope so.
At first USE is somewhat fun. But like munchkin karoke, it quickly gets mind-numbing. So after enjoying a few turns of Fall Blau, I quickly found myself wanting to do nothing so much as stop after a few turns into the scenarios. Thankfully, my opponent felt the same way. It just all felt so fiddly-wrong and it could have been set on Barsoom for all the World War 2 feel it has. It was work to play this: blue collar work, outside, with a shovel, and no gloves, facing hard ground, on a 100 degree day, with only dirty water to drink.
The feeling wasn't unlike what I get when playing a made-to-be-played-solitaire game, these always fill me with nihilistic dread. Except here you have to wait for your opponent. And you need an opponent.
Still, if one enjoys process heavy, solitaire games like Patton's Best, or the more recent The Hunters, they may find something to like here. Many people apparently do.
But do yourself a favor before laying down the substantial green this game is going to cost you and try it out with Case Blue. That will allow you to pull back the curtain. You may see a wizard artfully conjuring up magical mechanics that blend into a state-of-the-art WW 2 simulation, or, like me, all you see is some bumper cars and a couple of 40+-page instruction manuals on how to drive them.
The rules are comprehensive and well written, the designer seems to go above and beyond in supporting the game and it certainly brings something new to the table, so it's not an F in my book. But I'd rather find myself aboard a hot air balloon in a tornado than have to spend another day with USE.
Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe
Unconditional Surrender! Case Blue
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